Forget the flu or common cold.
What seems to spread like wildfire, according to doctoral students from the University of Florida, is rudeness — specifically in the workplace. And just like a cold or gossip, it can quickly spread from person to person, something that can be thought of as a kind of “contagious rudeness.” Apparently, interaction with rude people may make you rude yourself.
Don’t I know it.
I remember work experiences in which staff routinely cursed at other employees, often unleashing a barrage of F-words. Weeks later, at that same ad agency, I found myself dropping the F-bomb to a colleague, albeit more quietly and with less intensity than the aforementioned yell fest. My behavior was completely out of character; I went from Poised Pollyanna to a Nasty Nellie during that three-second incident.
It bothered me immensely, yet I found relief from my guilt knowing that it was the first (and has been my last “outburst,” I should note) time engaging in such behavior. It just felt wrong the instant I uttered the offensive word. Being mean just isn’t my thing and, I’m convinced, shouldn’t be anybody’s thing.
Maintaining kindness in the face of rudeness
Still, I’m very familiar with the rudeness cycle. I have observed others who have been on the receiving end of rudeness, left speechless by another person’s unkind actions or backhanded compliments. I’ve had friends, strangers, and colleagues say rude things to me when I was 70 pounds heavier, as well as when I lost the weight. There have been rude sneers, stares, and statements, which in some cases led to stalled work projects, often born from a hesitancy of approaching an unkind coworker in the first place. I’ve been cursed at, given the middle finger while passing a co-worker’s office, and ignored altogether — all rude in my book.
Fortunately, I always turned the other cheek, refusing to give in to the meanness. Instead, I’ve opted to maintain a sense of positivity, doing my best to increase workplace kindness by deliver uplifting words and helping others, instead of — as the study suggests I might regularly do — keep the rude wheel spinning.
How rudeness hurts, personally and professionally
All the while though, I often felt sickened by such behaviors, a knot in my stomach and a lingering pang in my heart becoming more persistent with every rude experience I personally encounter or observe. Sadness, not so much for myself, but for humanity, often crept in — and still does.
At the core of it all, I find my thoughts turning to: But it doesn’t have to be this way. Rudeness is mean, unnecessary. Kindness is not.
That’s the way the workplace, and all of society, should be. Excessive cursing, negativity, corporate game-playing and rudeness are wastes of time, a bad reflection of personal and professional character, and are disruptive to productivity. Not to mention that it’s just mean, and mean is not a nice way to be in any setting.
“Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” says Trevor Foulk, a University of Florida doctoral student involved with the study — of which he was the lead author. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”
And, I believe, it has a negative effect on your soul.
Harsh words, sarcastic facial expressions and unprofessional actions can create a domino effect in the workplace; before you know it, employees feel beaten, knocked down. Soon, the entire office is wrapped up in negative vibes, every person teetering on the edge of rudeness, souls hardening along with the skin they’ve been told should be that way too.
Study details: Rudeness spreads, lingers in subconscious
For the study, the researchers had participants engage in a series of negotiation exercises, after which they were asked to rate their partner’s rudeness levels. They were also asked to watch videos of rude workplace interactions and participate in word identification exercises as well. The goal was to determine the effects of rudeness in organizations. Indeed, it was ultimately determined that those who experienced or even observed rude behaviors became rude themselves, a behavior they then exhibited while interacting with the next partner. On and on the rudeness spread.
Even time didn’t make a difference. Rudeness didn’t diminish after long periods of time; contagious rudeness was evident whether the exercises were conducted one right after another or if a week went by in between.
An abstract from the Journal of Applied Psychology, where the findings were published, states the following:
Specifically, we show that rudeness activates a semantic network of related concepts in individuals’ minds, and that this activation influences individual’s hostile behaviors. In sum, in these three studies we show that just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily and have significant consequences for people in organizations.
So, can this hurt people?
The importance of eradicating contagious rudeness in the workplace
You bet, and especially so on the work front, where a Harvard Business Review poll estimated that 98 percent of workers said they’ve experienced uncivil behaviors on the job. That’s a lot of nasty stares and comments filling up hallways and conference rooms.
Without getting overly scientific, it’s explained that when we’re exposed to rudeness, our subconscious makes us act in ways that interpret both neutral and negative behaviors as rude, making us more inclined to behave rudely ourselves.
It’s my hope that people don’t use this study to justify their own rudeness, pointing to the contagious nature of such behavior with a “see, that’s just the way the world is” mentality.
Instead, I hope the study teaches us that if negative behaviors can influence others in the workplace, so to can kindhearted interactions. Here’s to replacing rudeness with kindness and enjoying its spread throughout the work culture — and everywhere, for that matter.
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